The Labour-drug Question in precarious times: The rise of Heroin and Xanax

Monday, 14 June, 2021 - 16:00

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A considerable amount of research shows that drugs in colonial settings drew groups into relations of dependence—that is, they acted as ‘labour inducers’ and ‘labour enhancers’ in the words of Jankowiak and Bradburd. Southern Africa’s racial capitalism was notoriously drug fueled, as exemplified by mining companies providing alcohol to workers and farmers paying in ‘dops’ of wine. Yet attempts to think through connections between drugs and work have somewhat stalled in recent years both in South Africa and wider afield. This is despite innovative work on genealogies of ‘addiction,’ and efforts by labour scholars to challenge linear notions of proletarianization or precarianization. As such, while South Africa’s place in international drug trafficking is becoming well studied, less emphasis is given to the experiences of those using psychoactive substances, including the way these are lived through categories such as izidakamizwa (roughly intoxicants in isiZulu)—a concept that de-emphasizes legal status and overlaps with certain gendered meanings of work. Expanding the focus from drugs at work to the (much less studied) connections between schools, drugs, and work, this paper gives attention to two drugs that burst into youth culture in Durban in the 2010s, heroin/whoonga and Xanax, and draws out connections to gendered and racialized aspects of casual work, inequalities in schooling, and multi-layered understandings of drug use/‘addiction.’

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